THE FINEST ROUTES IN THE ALPS

Lenzspitze (4294m) – ENE Ridge and Traverse – AD, III+, 950m

From the west the Lenzspitze appears as a rather modest bump at the southern end of the Nadelgrat. However from Saastal to the east and the Oberland to the north it shows its true form and its beautiful NE snow face, the Dreieselwand, is instantly recognizable. None of the routes to the summit are simple but the easiest is actually the south ridge via the Dom hut. However the loose nature of the rock on that side has meant this is largely neglected.

It is hard to choose between the snow face and the rock ridges for the finest route, though the choice will largely be defined by conditions – good dry conditions on the ridges usually mean unpleasant conditions on the face and vice versa. However the logic of the full ridge traverse appeals to the most, as often the easiest way to get down having climbed the face – is to climb back down the face again.

The Lenzspitze – Nadelhorn ridge traverse is one of the finest outings in the region, and forms the southern arm of the long Nadelgrat ridge that ends after the Dirruhorn to the north west. The access from the Mischabel hut to the base of the ENE ridge of the Lenzspitze is quick and convenient.

The first section of the route follows a fine selection of steep slabs, flakes, steps and airy ridgeline to a final snow arête leading to the summit. Due to the slabby strata of the rock retreat would actually be quite awkward from high on this ridge and it is rarely used in descent. Continuing NW towards the Nadelhorn and completing a horseshoe traverse provides the logical continuation.

On the traverse to the Nadelhorn the climbing is on excellent solid red gneiss. It is never difficult, but finding the best line is intricate and interesting as the route climbs up steep steps and down slabs. From the Nadeljoch the climbing is sustained and finishes up the magnificent orange pillars approaching the Nadelhorn summit. These look impressive but turn out to be surprisingly amenable climbing. The descent from the Nadelhorn via the NE ridge provides a fitting and easy passage back onto the glacier and down to the hut.

We left Saas Fee in the mid afternoon of another fiery July day. After a few hours of steep dusty paths we got up onto the scrambling, rocks and cables that define the last section up to the hut. The sun had swung round and we were thankfully climbing in and out of the shade and cooler air. On the last couple of hundred metres to the hut I could see that the sun was imminently going to set behind the mountains. I trotted faster up the last section and arrived out of breath just in time to get an image of the hut as the shade line was creeping over the veranda, and in time to have a drink before dinner.

The hut is perched in a spectacular location with grand views across Saastal and north into the Oberland. You can just make out the Aletsch Glacier, the Finsteraarhorn, Monch and Jungfrau in the distance. After dinner I watched the shade crawl up from the valley to the summits of the Lagginhorn and Weissmeis opposite and sat contentedly on the rocks below the hut taking photos. After a bit of sleep we got up groggily at 3, ate breakfast and left about 4. Several other parties left about the same time and we all trundled up the rocky ridge in the dark.

The track to the Nadelhorn continues here and we turned left to follow the snowy ridge at the edge of the glacier. After a good refreeze overnight the snow was crisp and rocks glinted in our headlamps with a little hoarfrost. We put on crampons and continued along towards the base of the rocky ridge at 3815m. This soon rose up in steps of mixed rubble and snow before taking shape as the rock became more solid and the ridge more defined. The first hint of light began to show the way as we passed over a couple of small spikes and got to the foot of the steeper climbing. We put on the rope and began climbing up moving together placing the odd piece of gear. The rock began to take on a predawn glow for several minutes before the sun rolled down from the summit and hit us.

The air was still frigid however and the rock held its frost for some time. We were climbing with gloves on and nearly all our clothes despite the energy of the sun. Easy slabs lead to flakes and blocks and a little narrow crest, then more slabs and cracks. Though we had read several descriptions they made the terrain sound much complex that it appeared and we just followed the ridge on up. We dropped into a small notch just as a Swiss guide, Andy Schnarf, and his client caught up behind us. As usual I was pausing much more frequently than most parties do to shoot different angles in the early morning light.

We continued up the beautiful slabby rock above, albeit snow covered in places, not realizing that were already on the little peak of the Grand Gendarme. A bit of steep down climbing avoided the faff of a rappel and we continued down along the exposed ridge to the easy ground below the next buttress and Andy went past. I had assumed the next buttress was the Grand Gendarme as the previous step hadn’t been particularly defined by any of the features I was expecting. The terrain above looked vague and broken but offered an obvious weakness to the left, albeit on horrendous looking rock.

Though some guidebooks suggest heading left up the broken ledges most suggest taking the corner just right of the ridgeline. This in retrospect looked steeper but much better rock. The passage on the left was a tottering pile of rubble that required careful climbing with us both side by side so as not to drop anything on the other. It was not difficult, but not particularly pleasant. It was only when we reached the snow ridge above and Andy appeared behind us again, having taken the good climbing direct, that it finally clicked as to what feature we were on.

As they paused to have a bite to eat we put on our crampons, took off the rope and headed up snow crest. It started off at a low angle with deep footsteps in the snow, but as it steepened I was surprised how icy it was just under the névé, and I ended up placing my feet quite carefully. To our right the terrain dropped away into the excellent looking sweep of steep snow – the NE face of Lenzspitze or ‘Dreiselwand’. The snow crest went over a small bump, into a dip and then as it steepened we stepped left onto the rock ridge and over a few delicate slabby moves. A final short section on snow brought us to the summit rocks. It was 7:45 and the sun was only just beginning to warm the air. We paused to have a bite to eat before starting down the enticing NW ridge. It was here that it became clear that the ENE ridge to the Lenzspitze is only the warm-up and that most of the interesting climbing is still to come.

The ridge heading off towards the Nadelhorn doesn’t look particularly long, but presents a plethora of bumps and gendarmes, each one giving interesting climbing but interrupting any casual rhythm of progress. We roped back up and started down the summit rocks and down onto a short steep crest of snow. After this the ridge looked largely dry so we took off our crampons. The rock on the shaded west side of the ridge was still cold and dropped precipitously down into the glacier leading up to the Dom. There were still several teams stretched out over the glacier, though most were already much higher towards the summit.

A short corner and a slabby down-climb lead onto an easier section of ridge and for a short while we were walking easily. The ridge doesn’t present many passages like this though and it was soon back onto a short fin of rock and then a long section of short sharp gendarmes. Due to the rock strata they followed a characteristic pattern of climbing up the steep blocky south side and then a steep slabby step to climb down on the north side. Each little peak had metalwork to rappel off if one so desired, but this is probably only necessary in more mixed snowy conditions when the slabs would be very delicate.

We kept moving together by turns making the rope longer or shorter as the terrain got more or less tricky. Some of the little towers still held patches of snow on their north sides but with good footsteps we managed to pass these without putting crampons back on. We ended up squabbling for a while as each of us wanted to be in control of the rope and demanded right to do so. Neither of us are however particularly good at ceding control so for a while we battled over each little nobble of rock and totally lost track of the grand setting we were in. Andy and his client sneaked past us again and we stopped before one of the bigger towers to have some food. The climbing just got better and better and after the little bumps the ridge starts to climb a series of deep orange coloured towers as you head up towards the Nadelhorn.

Some of the steps were surprisingly steep but furnished with such enormous holds that the climbing was easy and fun. The route finding wasn’t particularly taxing as we just followed the ridge, or the obvious line of weakness. The slabs to reach the following notch were longer than the previous steps and even when dry were quite delicate to down-climb. After a broad notch the ridge goes gently for a rope length then kicked up again. The exposure was fantastic and the rock was some of the most impeccable solid orange gneiss in the region.

From this last tower just a short step down and back up lead us to the summit cross of the Nadelhorn. After another snack we unroped, and scuttled down the rocks to the ridge below. We put crampons back on and continued down the ridge and caught up with Andy. Before the Windjoch we roped up again as the snow had begun to soften and we were back onto the glacier. However before we headed down to Saas we had another onerous mission to accomplish… a few months earlier an avalanche on the Dirruhorn had relieved us of quite a bit of equipment so we trudged over to the base of the route to hunt for axes, a crampon and a ski boot.

After some searching we did find one of the axes but the rest of the booty had been claimed by the rimaye no doubt. By the time we came back to climb back over the Windjoch I was hot, dry and thirsty and Valentine had to drag me over. Needless to say the long walk down to Saas was as grueling as ever.

Conditions

The Lenzspitze ENE ridge and traverse is best undertaken when the ridge is largely clear of winter snow. The slabby nature of the rock makes for difficult climbing in crampons. Nevertheless late in the season the last section of snow to the Lenzspitze summit, and the exposed descent from Nadelhorn usually become icy and delicate so the middle of summer tends to be the best time to climb the route. The traverse can also be an interesting way to descend having climbed the NE face of the Lenzspitze, but under snowy conditions the ridge will require slow and careful climbing.

Gear Crampons, Axe, 40m rope, glacier travel gear, slings, nuts and a couple of cams.

Approach

From Saas Fee either take the Hannig lift and traverse SW, or start straight up the track from town. The path rises 1500m in under 3km. The last 400m section is a fun easy scramble with some metalwork and ladders to arrive at the Mischabel hut. This is one of the highest huts in the Alps to have a non-glaciated approach. The modern hut over-shadows the original hundred year old hut that remains as the winter quarters just below. Inside the new hut is clean and modern. It provides quick and easy access to the base of the route, though the start of the path behind the hut is worth checking before nightfall. Follow the well-worn ridge WNW to the edge of the glacier at the Schwarzhorn, then the blunt snow ridge SW to the base of the rocks and a scramble up to pt 3815m.

Route

The best climbing and most solid rock are to be found by following the ridgeline throughout. There are many rappel anchors scattered along the route for short descents though all of these can be down climbed without undue difficulty.

From pt. 3815 follow the ridge horizontally until it begins to ascend. Climb the blocky ribs and ridge above to the base of the Grand Gendarme. Climb the first step then down into a small notch. Continue up the slabby ridge above to the summit of the Grand Gendarme (4091m). Down climb a few metres (or rappel) into the notch beyond and continue to the base of a steep broad buttress. Though this can be climbed on the rubble to the left the best line takes the corner visible just to the right of centre. This is climbed directly (3c) to then regain the crest and thus to the top of the buttress. From here a steep (45º) and sometimes narrow snow ridge leads to the final rocks below the summit of the Lenzspitze (4294m).

From the summit head NW down rocks to a short section that is usually on snow. Follow the ridge almost entirely on the crest where the best climbing and most solid rock is found. At all the difficult descents there are metal spikes to lower off if necessary. Moderate terrain leads to the Nadeljoch (4208m) and continues via a series of lumps and short towers to the base of the longer orange towers leading to the Nadelhorn. These hold the best rock, the steepest climbing (III+) and clear of snow quicker than the rest of ridge. Continue on or near the crest to the summit of the Nadelhorn (4327m).

Descent

If you’re heading all the way to Saas Fee take a minute to enjoy the view first then probably some pain killers. Start down the NE ridge by climbing down under the summit rocks on the E side of the ridge. Depending on the season this will either be mixed or dry rock. Follow the NE ridge, avoiding any cornicing, to the Windjoch (3845m). Take a wide line around the steepest section of the slope and head SSE back across the glacier and down to the Schwarzhorn and thus the hut. The walk back down to the village is likely to leave you fairly worked.